” ‘One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain,
by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul….
It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference towards others.
It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are
and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe.’ “–
The Chosen, Chaim Potok
I have finally finished The Chosen by Chaim Potok. This 284-page novel has been my reading fare for the past two weeks or so—onboard the MRT or bus, while getting a haircut, in coffeeshops, before dozing off at night. Any chance I got to retreat to it, I took. But before that, it had lain under my computer desk gathering dust for many months. Now, less than an hour after I’ve turned its last page, I regret that I took so long to get to reading it.
The Chosen is not a page-turner in the sense of a Dan Brown or John Grisham novel. (Here I risk betraying my literary ineptitude.) This is probably why I didn’t get past Chapter 1 when I first attempted to read it many months ago. The Chosen opens with teen-aged Jewish boys playing baseball. Reading it then, I felt there were just too many new elements to grapple with: baseball (I’m not sports-minded, so the blow-by-blow description of the play didn’t interest me much), the cultural context (the Jewish jargon and tradition were very new to me), the setting (Brooklyn, New York City in the late 1930s did not make for easy visualization). And did I mention that I was a lazy reader?
But the fact that the book was highly recommended and loaned to me by a certified bookworm (who just happens to be the publications director at the publishing house where I work), I just had to give The Chosen a second chance. And I’m glad I did. This time around, I decided that I would at least read through a few chapters—toil through the baseball, the Jewish references—and then decide whether this book was for me.
Forty pages into the novel, 15-year-old Danny Saunders swings his bat and the ball hits bespectaled Reuven Malter, precariously lodging a shard of glass in his left eye. The accident brings these two boys from the opposite poles of Judaism to the common ground of intimate friendship. From that point on, I knew I would finish the book. The next chapters follow the admirable friendship between Danny and Reuven as they weather the storms of religious ideologies, adolescence, intellectual awakenings, and father-and-son relationships. Their fathers, both highly regarded in their respective Jewish communities, are men of conviction who raise their boys the best way they know how.
I have found in The Chosen many themes that tug at the heart. Friendship, with its burdens and delights, is depicted with warmth and almost-palpable reality. The portrayal of fatherhood as a sacred, even frightful, responsibility creates a lump in the throat. A respect for differences in convictions is nobly upheld, but not without a realistic acknowledgement of the difficulty of practicing it, especially in the realm of faith and politics.
The Chosen is fiction that ennobles. It touches the soft parts of our heart—those parts that need to be engaged regularly if we are to remain in touch with our humanity, its intricacies, and its undeniable connection to the Master of the Universe.